On a regular basis, I’m mistaken for being Chinese – as in from the Motherland, China, Chinese. Now, to be fair, I look pretty damn Chinese, but these days it’s getting ridiculous.
I blame it on the throngs of Chinese tourists in Siem Reap, and the fact that many Cambodian students learn Chinese as another language outside of their regular schooling.
At the start of every new class, even back from when I was teaching in Thailand, I’ve enjoyed playing the game, “Guess where the teacher is from”.
As I walk in, I notice their raised eyebrows, the whispers to their classmates and of course, their smiles. After I’ve written “Welcome to such-and-such-level” on the whiteboard, “My name is Lani” and introduce myself, I like to dig in, I like to get started.
That is if they don’t beat me to it. Sometimes, they immediately ask, “Teacher, where are you from?”
Tilting my head, I smile, “Where do you think I’m from?”
“No, good guess though.”
I put my hands on my hips, as if to say, “Really?”
At this point they have started to slow down their guessing and have become confused.
As a joke someone likes to throw in, “Vietnam” because Cambodians hate the Vietnamese and look down upon them. Lots of history, wars, land disputes and blame, I guess.
“What other countries are there besides Asian ones?”
When someone finally is able to guess, “America,” I’m then able to say, “Yes!” and then I try to get them to guess which state. They know California and New York and sometimes they know another state like Washington or Florida, but generally speaking, I’ve stumped them and they’re staring at my face and they can’t let go that I look the way that I do.
In Thailand, after I’ve done my very poor imitation of hula dancing, they’d be able to guess, Hawaii. But in Cambodia, not so much.
Depending on the level and my mood, I can explain that my mother is Thai (met with ooohhhhs and ahhhhs) and my father is Chinese. Then the look, the final look of triumph spreads across their faces, “I knew it!”
One time, a boy around 14 got excited, “Oh, you’re Thai and Chinese, and like Cambodians, like us, I mean, yeah, you’re like Cambodian, like us.”
It was sweet.
When new Khmer teachers start the term, I’m asked, “Are you Chinese? Are you from China? Are you China?”
And when a new expat teacher saw me hovering near the teachers’ room, she politely asked, “Can I help you?”
It never gets old. It’s weird after all these years, I haven’t lost my patience, snapped or gotten irritated (unless I’m outside of school or I’m boiling hot or its extenuating circumstances).
In Thailand, whenever I’ve explained that I’m from Hawaii, they would just accept that. She’s Hawaiian. But here, that’s not good enough, we don’t believe you. What are you?
As I’ve said, I’m used to it, after years of living abroad, but generally speaking, I’m not discriminated against. At least I don’t feel that way among my students. If they transfer out of my class because they want a white teacher, I have no idea, I’m none the wiser. A few times, when I’m subbing for a white colleague, I’ll joke that the students are thinking they got a downgrade, but honestly, I don’t know what they are thinking. Perhaps one day I’ll ask.
Yes, that’s what I’ll do.
Because when I’m teaching I can’t help but wonder if they treat me differently than they do a ‘more foreign looking expat’. But to the schools’ credit, they hire other Asian Americans, like me. And I’m grateful that the students are exposed not only to different accents (British, Australian, etc.), but different skin colors speaking English as their native language, as well.
There are times when I’ll sit among the students when we’re watching a presentation and I’ll just blend in, I know, because I remember one of my colleagues exclaiming, “I took a peek in your classroom and wondered, where is the teacher?!”
Another time, the cleaning lady mistakenly thought I was a Khmer teacher. And yet another time, first day of class, a student walks in and asks, “Where is the teacher?” because I was sitting down next to the students waiting for the rest of the students to show up. Or when my Thai students wai me (put their hands together and slightly bow their heads out of respect), it’s a habit, even after knowing who I am, that reaction, this is what you do when you see your auntie, just can’t be shaken out.
Yeah. Looking Chinese is a funny business in Asia. People coming up to speak Chinese (“Ni hau”), folks assuming based on how I look that I come from this completely other world (which I’ve never been to). But I’m American. I was born and raised in Hawaii. I have a standard North American accent. And, like a true American, I’m horrible at learning other languages. I listen to classic rock and I love sci-fi movies. My inner universe does not reflect who they think I am.
I’m so used to this though. My partner thinks it’s hilarious. He lived in China, he speaks Chinese (and has been known to answer back to Chinese people when they address me) and wants me to “Chinese it up” like when he insisted I buy Chinese dresses in Malaysia for the sake of a good laugh.
“But why not?”
“Because, because it looks like I’m here to take their order.”
One day I must go to China. I used to want to go to Beijing to see where my father was born. These days, not so much because it is no longer Peking, China, but the belching pollution beast of a city that I fear breathing into. When the bf and I have thought about going, he’d teach me Chinese. He tells me that my pronunciation is spot-on, dead-on and uncanny, “You’re a natural!” He laughs.
I’m certainly not a natural at Thai even though I’ve heard it all my life. Thai is a struggle. So, I don’t know. Maybe I’m more Chinese than I realize. One day, I’ll see. One day, I’ll blend in among the Chinese and see what happens.
Happy Chinese New Year.
Have you ever experienced a case of mistaken identity?